Hay bales on prairie fields, Canada

Across Canada - Vancouver to Halifax on the VIA Canadian Train - The Big Trip 9

Author: Sue
Date: 14th September 2013

Across Canada

The next part of my Big Trip is a train journey right across Canada. And Canada is definitely big. I'm excited to be travelling across the second largest country in the world, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. And I'm running parallel with the the world's longest bi-national land border - 5,525 miles of it. (That makes for interesting politics and relationships with the USA).

I'm making stopovers in Canada's three largest metropolitan areas: Toronto, Montreal, and, first of all Vancouver. But I've decided there isn't time for Ottawa (which people are often surprised to learn is the capital.)


Vancouver grew, and made its money through its natural harbour. It became a hugely important trading link. But the city traces its origins to the site of a makeshift tavern on the edge of a mill. The owner was known as Gassy Jack so the area was called Gastown. The original site is marked by the Gastown steam clock, which still steams away. The city was renamed Vancouver in 1886, through a deal with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). (He was a British. naval explorer).Vancouver gave rise to Greenpeace in 1969 and is home to the TED conferences. Its been awarded the twin accolades of best place in the world to live and one of the most expensive.

A Trolley Bus Tour of Vancouver

And shellshock. It's freezing (well 12 degrees) and pouring with rain in Canada. Full of jet lag (I've lost five hours this time, coming from Fiji) and shivering, so I decide the best option is a trolley bus tour to refresh my memories of 'The Number 1 Place in the World to Live'. Except that the windows all steam up, so I can't see out and it's so cloudy that there isn't much to see anyway.

I remember that Vancouver has great mountain scenery and a fabulous harbour, best seen from a viewpoint the other side of the harbour. Other than the views the highlights were the Museum of Anthropology - totem poles and Native American carvings and boats-, the old section, around the Gas Clock, and the terrifying pedestrian Capilano Suspension Bridge (not to be confused with the small iron Port Mann coathanger in the harbour, which I understand has now been blown up and replaced with a brand new suspension bridge).

Stanley Park

But today I will have to accept what I'm told and rely on my memories. The driver says it's the first day of fall and it always rains in the fall. If I recollect correctly it rained the last time I came, and that was in the spring.

A quick foray into the mall to stock up on fleeces seems a good idea. I also buy an umbrella so that I can shield my camera from the downpour. Then I take a risk and get off the trolley in Stanley Park to take pictures of city scrapers across the water and the totem poles. The umbrella idea doesn't work; practical multi tasking is beyond me, as I can't balance the brolly and depress the button at the same time. (Last visit's pictures were better). It's tipping it down really hard and there is little shelter so I decide I had better walk up to the next stop. Cars driving past take great delight in sending up great waves of water as they speed along. I am drenched. Finally I flag down another trolley bus. Then it breaks down.

And the people are so grumpy and rude. Is it the weather? I've been barged past repeatedly. If you give way or hold the door no-one says thank you. I even had a battle with the taxi driver yesterday who tried to cheat me. And when I try to chat to people on the bus they look at me as if I'm mad.

The only good thing I have to report is that the leaves on the trees here are beginning to turn. That augurs well for the rest of the trip. And at least I leave tonight.

Vancouver Island

On my last trip here I flew the 60 miles over to Vancouver Island.( I got the ferry back) The American president's Airforce 1 was sitting on the runway. It's a scenic and worthwhile visit. Victoria, capital of British Columbia on the tip, is full of colonial charm. It is the southernmost major city in Western Canada and one of the oldest in the Pacific Northwest, with British settlement beginning in 1843. The city's most famous landmark is the Parliament Buildings, home of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. The city's Chinatown is the second oldest in North America after San Francisco's. There is also a huge Japanese influence.

I stayed in the harbour city of Nanaimo, with friend Jenny's relatives. Nanaimo is possibly most famous for having a chocolate dessert name after it, though there is some suggestion that the recipe was actually stolen from an earlier bar called London Fog.

The mountain scenery is stunning. There's a range named Golden Hinde after Drake's ship. The Pacific Rim Park on the west coast is bleak blustery and wonderful.

En Train -The Canadian

The train chugs past hills that gradually increase in height to mountains capped with the first snow of the winter, turquoise rivers and endless fir trees mingled with birch and aspen. These are turning a golden yellow and when the sun peeps out, as it does on occasion, the views are glorious. Unfortunately, there is still some rain as well. There are very few inhabitants, just the odd lumberjack at a saw mill or floating logs or a farmhand feeding the pigs and a sprinkle of log cabins.

The VIA Rail train - (The Canadian) is great fun. (And a great deal cheaper than the Rocky Mountaineer). It's fifties refurbished steel, typical diner style and is very long. They board economy on a different platform and then hook the cars on the front. There are observation cars and a dining car as well as an activities car. I expect I shall avoid that. I have a dinky little cabin with my own washbasin, a toilet that doubles as a foot stool (a little bizarre) and a fold down bed.

The other passengers seem to be tour groups, mostly grizzlies of American/Australian nationality, several English. We travel at snail's pace for the first part of the journey, leaving in the evening, when we are offered champagne and canapés to celebrate. The steward says that he had been instructed to give us one glass each. Then he winks and tells us that if our glass is empty that means he can give us one glass. And he hands me a tumbler full anyway.

On Board the Canadian

Using the camera is even more problematic than trying to photograph fish, with the rain and reflections. The train speeds up at all the wrong moments or a tree, another train or power lines appear just as I squeeze the trigger. I suspect most of the collection so far will have to be deleted. The food is flowing freely. It's like being on a cruise. Other than the three main meals, in the dining car, there are drinks, pastries and fruit being handed out all day.

The Canadian Rockies

Jenny and I drove from Vancouver into the Rocky Mountains, passing Whistler and being forced to take a 200 mile diversion, as there was a landslide. Jenny got stopped for speeding and received a long lecture from the Mountie, who then let us off. The snow was gorgeous and there was plenty of it still at Easter. We skirted Lake Maligne and skied at Silverstar in the Monashee Mountains. It turned out, fortuitously, that Jenny's cousin lived in Vernon, nearby and made ski videos. Surprisingly and delightfully, the slopes were deserted.

Over the continental divide and into Alberta and the white capped mountains of Banff National Park. The centrepiece is Lake Louise (frozen and glittery).

Jasper, Canada

This afternoon I'm back into Alberta on my train, losing yet another hour, and stopping at Jasper in the centre of Canada's largest Rocky Mountain park. Five hundred and fifty miles so far. When Jenny and I got to Jasper, we walked down the high street with an elk. This time no elks in town - they have been discouraged, but a pair are swimming in a river. Jasper is still a two street town, but it's a good opportunity for me to get a little exercise and take some pictures that aren't blurred. And it is just like a cruise, as everyone piles off and hits the shops with instructions to make sure that they are back on time. Which doesn't give us long, as the train is already running fifty minutes late.

Onwards Through Alberta

I have palled up with a lady called Hilary, who has the 'roomette' opposite mine. She departs with her tour group at Jasper, so I speak to the attendant, Dionne (who only attends to sleeping quietly in his own cabin as far as I can see) and establish that no-one will be occupying her space until tomorrow. So I requisition it as my en-suite. That means I can leave the bed down in my room and admire the scenery of Canada from under my warm duvet.

I've slept through Edmonton at midnight and now we're heading for Saskatchewan and then Manitoba and the loss of yet another hour. The pace is very variable. Sometimes we really crawl and we often have to stop entirely and wait for the two mile long freight trains to pass, as they apparently have precedence. We only speed up if there is a photo opportunity. In an unexpected burst of energy Dionne tells me that the train has been known to run as much as 18 hours behind.

Saskatchewan, Canada

We have left the mountains behind, and for some time I can see only forest in every direction. Then the landscape flattens into prairies and skyscraper silos, but it still holds the eye. To my surprise, I am too engrossed to read at all. The wheat fields are prettier than their American cousins, more undulating, interspersed with areas of wetland, rippling reed mace and waterfowl, dappled with sunshine. A stag is drinking at one lake. There is a smattering of chocolate roll hay bales - very David Hockney. And the trees are definitely looking more and more autumnal. There are also giant heaps of pink potash.

Surprisingly, Saskatchewan and Alberta are the only landlocked provinces of Canada. Huge Hudson Bay to the north dips down to Manitoba. Saskatchewan has 100,000 lakes though - 10% of its total area. No sea means no moderating bodies of water, so the winters here are severe. Temperatures below - 45 °C are possible. And, confusingly, today, the temperature has climbed up past 20 degrees in sunny Saskatchewan and my cabin has turned from fridge to oven. It's great that the increasingly mellow foliage is magnificently illuminated.


I leap off at Saskatoon (great name), the capital of Saskatchewan, and home to half the inhabitants of the province. But there is nothing there to see. A grubby little station, a few trees and a lot of railway sidings. Still, it's sunny, if very fresh, and I loiter very close to the train. I'm terrified it will leave without me.

Manitoba, Canada

Manitoba is the centre of Canada, the most easterly of the three great prairie provinces. There are some stunning river valley views. It's just a shame the train is going too fast to take many decent pictures. I leap off the train again at the capital, Winnipeg, but it's nine in the evening and everything is closed, except for a pub. Just time to pick up some WiFi and do my emails. Catching up with work is a good way to get stressed just before bedtime....

Playing Sardines

Life in a sardine can is becoming a little tiresome, especially as I am now deprived of my en-suite. I can't reach or find anything without scrabbling around and banging my head. I have to reverse back down the corridor every time I meet someone going the other way. The other passengers, are not super friendly. Neither is the service. One of the waitresses is called Sunny and she is not aptly named. Slip-Slap-Slop would be more appropriate.

My fellow tourists seem to spend the majority of their time on board sleeping. I've ended up eating most of my meals with some Germans, so the conversation hasn't exactly flowed. As you will probably have deduced by now I'm grumpy; I haven't been sleeping very well. The train is noisy, there are numerous untraceable rattles, and it bumps along; the track was so bad last night that I was convinced that a derailment was imminent.

Ontario, Canada

The scenery is still fascinating, however. Now we're traversing Ontario - it's massive. It's going to take nearly two days to cross, and it's been forests and lakes glittering in the sun all day. There are endless skinny spiked firs, but their sombre green is continually enlivened with the fiery orange and yellow of birch and aspen and the odd crimson carpet.

Various activities are announced as we roll along. We even have musicians on board. They are very pleasant girls, I was chatting to them yesterday at dinner. But I refuse to take time out from the view. I even forgo lunch today. Though, to be honest, I'm still suffering from my late breakfast. And there are mountains of free fruit, not to mention cookies and croissants, in the park cars.

Today's stop is at Hornepayne, which appears to be a fifties 'old' station, with a few murals and, quel surprise ( have to practise the French again), little else.  Talking of French, it's very reassuring listening to the English speaking Canadians attempting to make their announcements in French. Their accent is truly execrable and it's peppered with 'ooh la las'. I can't decide if they are being deliberately subversive.

An Itchy Night

More drama - at dinner I begin to itch and when I undress later, in the hopes of a good night's sleep to end my journey I discover that my whole body is covered in red angry bites. Really odd as I've been fully clothed the whole trip. I summon my new cabin attendant, who luckily takes her job a little more seriously than Dionne and we strip the bed and examine it for wildlife. Nothing to be seen, but she replaces the whole lot. The only other possibility is the shower, which is at the end of the corridor. I shan't be having another one of those till I get to my hotel. Meanwhile, here's to an itchy night.

Toronto, Canada

I had thought the Canadians were trying to make up for other shortcomings by personalising the phone service, but it seems that Rogers is the Canada equivalent of Vodafone. I'm in Toronto, drinking what is billed as the best apple martini in the world. It probably is too. The steak is pretty wonderful as well! Ah civilisation!!!!!! My agent must have got a good deal on this hotel - The Royal York, polished wood, chandeliers and its own little arcade of shops.

I woke up to a completely different world. Little homesteads, clapboard houses and crimson trees. I've done very well. The weather is unseasonably gorgeous, I seem to be dragging a warm front along with me and fall is at its peak. I'm not sorry to leave the train. I had the service manager taking photos of my bites and an itchy night. When I finally got off the train the ground was still swaying and I thought for a moment I was in a time slip. London, Kingston and Brentford were all on the departure board.

Toronto - Deja Vu

Toronto is pretty much as I expected. It's the biggest city in Canada, the fourth biggest in North America and a cultural centre. The TV networks are based here. But it's unremarkable. Half the place seems to be under reconstruction, which might account for the whiffs of sewage I keep experiencing. Perhaps the most interesting area is fashionable Yorkville (Toronto was initially called York). with its high-end boutiques, galleries and design studios, especially on Bloor Street's "Mink Mile." Here are the chic cafes, polished bars and fine-dining restaurants. Its posh hotels host Hollywood insiders during the Toronto International Film Festival. Side streets are lined with picture-postcard Victorian homes with ornamental gardens.

Otherwise, I replicate past city jaunts. Up the CN tower, an open top bus tour and out in a boat to see the skyline view from Lake Ontario. It's very pleasant, and how can I complain when there isn't a cloud in the sky? But it's all been done better elsewhere on the trip. (Except possibly for the martini.)

En Train and Off Train

I'm still itching. And my face is still red; my nose has begun to peel again. However, the glorious weather continues and I'm about to catch the train again, to Montreal. My body hasn't realised it's left the train yet. I'm sure we pulled out of a station, as I got out of bed this morning. Today's journey is initially a mixture of suburbia and views across Lake Ontario, then farmland and woods, as we follow the St Lawrence River.


Montreal is the largest city in Quebec province. and the second largest in Canada (after Toronto). It's actually built on an island, in the St Lawrence River, surrounded by smaller islands. And to begin with, Montreal is a little daunting. The French announcements take precedence over the English ones, the second we enter Quebec; all the signs and billboards are in French. However, on short acquaintance Montreal promises much more than Toronto. It has atmosphere, a proper old town and port (as in eighteenth century), which has character, a church round every corner, cobbled streets full of cafes, bars that spill over onto the street and those expensive boutiques that have wooden floors and one rack of clothes. in the newer downtown areas, the old melds with the new. You would have to say Montreal was both hip and happening.

Montreal - Parfait

Dorchester Square and Place du Canada - premium addresses and transport hubs, with the Canada Life Building looming overhead, statues, cathedrals and cemeteries coming and going (they moved the bodies around depending on which was considered to be the dominant and therefore appropriate church).

The old town seems to be called interchangeably the Old Town and the Old Port. Place d'Armes, Place de Jacques Cartier and Place Royale are the hubs here, surrounded by more historic buildings than you can shake a stick at.

Place d'Armes is home to the ornately decorated Basilica of Notre Dame. The square here symbolically features an Englishman carrying a bulldog and a Frenchwoman bearing a poodle. The people are facing away from each other, but the dogs are eager to make friends.

Place de Jacques Cartier honours the French explorer who instigated much of the early French settlement in Canada. It's lined with cafes and is buzzing with tourists. Just to the west, Le Champs de Mars and the imposing City Hall. East, on the waterfront the Notre Dames de Bon Secours Chapel, highly embellished with statues, (you can't miss it ) and the domed Bonsecours Market, full of mid range aspiring to be high end shops and cafes. For a year, it was home to the national parliament.

Place Royale marks the place where Montreal's' first fort, Ville-Marie was built. This was required because of persistent incursions by the native Iroquois. Today, it's the site of the Old Customs House. There's also Molsen's, the oldest bank in Canada and underground passages.

I stroll along the waterfront taking pictures of the museums, in the old town, and the Jacques Cartier Bridge and adjacent port clocktower (British design) in the sunset. looking across to the Biosphere peeping above the trees, on St Helen's Island. The waterfront is where all of Montreal meets, jogging, cycling, walking, sunbathing on the strips of fake beach, or sitting in cafes. The old port is actually home to a marina where there are scores of modern boats, all berthed neatly in rows.

There are are old boats, however - the oldest tug in North America - in the more southerly national historic site, the Lachine Canal. This is the industrial section, with a row of flour mills, belching smoke and brutalist, hip apartments. The trees around the busy Old Port are just the sort of bright autumn red that you only see in photographs. I can prove it. And best of all, the inhabitants move smoothly from French to English without batting an eyelid, let alone tutting at your effrontery in using English or your poor French grammar. Parfait.

Mont Real

Up 400 steps to the Mount Royal Park lookout, the Kondiaronk Belvedere, offering views across the Island of Montreal. (The penny has just dropped - it's not Mon-tree-all it's Mont Real. Though the original name was Ville-Marie.) I discover plenty of fall colour. The trees here are like a tequila sunrise, yellow at the bottom, turning to flame orange in the middle and vermilion on top. And still a perfect blue sky backdrop.

I also find a festival preceding a football game, complete with cheerleaders and whooping. Montreal is renowned for its festivals; it hosts the largest jazz festival in the world. More great views across the town and river. Scrambling down a gravel side path, in an attempt to avoid all the joggers, I am pelted by acorns. It's not windy - is it the squirrels? Anyway, they hurt, a lot. I'm really glad I've never been hit by a coconut.

Downtown Montreal

Then all through Downtown, It's just like walking down Oxford Street. although here the busiest shopping street is St Catherine's Street. It's the backbone of Montreal, nine miles long, home to historic buildings such as the Bay Trading Company. Montréal has numerous different quarters, with unexpected pedestrian areas. Iconic, graffiti strewn St Laurent Boulevard (also dubbed Main) historically divides the city into east and west and is a cultural hub, with galleries and museums. It segues into the Quartier des Spectacles, the arts and entertainment district, located in the eastern section of Downtown Montreal, designed as a centre for Montreal's cultural events and festivals. It's excitingly packed with squares, stages and sculptures.

Around here, and in the Business District many buildings extend underground forming a cunningly contrived U shape linked with escalators, lifts and tunnels. This is Montreal's Underground City. Shops, food courts and performing areas are mixed with national and municipal offices. It began as a welcome retreat from the snow and cold of winter.

Then there's The Village, with a focus on the LBGQT population, university areas (notably McGill very well located Downtown), the cultural areas - look to Quartier Spectacles and trendy ( I can't keep saying hip) Plateau, beneath Mont Royal, where I'm staying. (Manoir Sherbrooke is extremely pleasant) with a plethora of pavement cafes, especially on Rue St Denis. (This is the area where the locals go to hang out and is less visited by tourists). Chinatown (nice dragon gates) and back to the old port. A fire engine goes past, lights flashing. (They don't pin pon here, they wail ). The town is thronging with locals enjoying the sun and again, there is lively music and street performers on every corner. Did I say that Montréal is a great city?

Quebec City

A side trip to Quebec City today, as folk I meet keep telling me it is the most interesting city in Canada. It takes me three hours each way on the train, but it is easily worth it. Anyway, the trains here are decidedly superior to what we get back home. Well designed, comfy, lots of space and free WiFi .

I feel as if I've been teleported to another continent. The name Quebec comes from the The Algonquian word Kébec, meaning "where the river narrows". This is still the St Lawrence, but it's now a seaway. The station is a little green roofed palace with turrets and I climb up a very steep hill (lots of exercise today as I've given up on tour buses and bought a map instead) to a seventeenth century (positively ancient in North America) walled town perched up above the river. The ramparts surrounding Old Quebec (Vieux-Québec) are the only fortified city walls remaining in the Americas, north of Mexico. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Quebec City - C'est Magnifique

The views are stunning in all directions. The water is wide, blue and full of boats framed by the autumn foliage. The town itself is high end quaint (rather than hip), neatly colourful and full of jolly buskers catering to the tourist groups milling in the narrow streets. The legendary Chateau Frontenac towers over it all. It's apparently the most photographed hotel in the world. It's also a sister to The Royal York in Toronto. I wonder if my agent could have got a deal on this one?

There's also the Citadelle of Quebec, an intact fortress that forms the centrepiece of the ramparts surrounding the old city, the National Assembly of Quebec and several impressive looking museums. Even the vistas out of the train window are picture perfect. If you painted a watercolour you would have to use 5/7 of a rainbow. The first four colours for the trees and the blue for the sky. Still not a cloud in sight - left them all in Vancouver. Brilliant.

I'm exhausted. It will be good to rest on a train again all day tomorrow after all this climbing. Montreal or Quebec? It's rather like choosing between Savannah and Charlestown. Savannah's cuter, but I'd rather live in Charlestown.

The Ocean Train, Canada

I'm on my way to Halifax, and this train is called The Ocean. It's newer than the last one - they say that it was British, originally constructed for the Channel Tunnel and then deemed not to be suitable. They are very big on safety too. We get briefings about emergency exits and how to break the glass - perhaps it's because of all the recent train crashes. This time I have a double cabin to myself, so it does have an en-suite.

Into New Brunswick, losing yet another hour and out into the Gulf of St Lawrence. The hills across the water are so red they are glowing. Whole villages of clapboard now and little white churches with steeples. Incredible intense colour. The fallfest has already exceeded my expectations. Anything else will be a bonus.

Chugging, finally into Nova Scotia. The French literally translates as New Scotland, but to start it looks more like Holland, very flat, very green, with those tall modern windmills. This terrain alternates with hills like the rolling downs of Sussex. The houses are more grey, blue and green pastels. I've finally crossed Canada and the American continent and arrived on the Atlantic shore.

Halifax, Canada -Water, Water, Everywhere

First impressions - Halifax is very quiet. No taxis at the station - I have to get the nice man in the hotel next door to call me one.

My luck finally gave out; it's raining. It's the only rainy day forecast this week and the only day I have in Halifax. The town round the docks looks just like home. Grey, wet, red brick Victorian blocks, lots of pubs. (More per capita than anywhere else in America.)  Halifax is one of the contenders for first or second biggest natural harbour in the world. Apparently Sydney (Australia), Poole, Cork and Falmouth are all in the running, but no-one seems quite sure who the winner is. Halifax very modestly bill themselves as second. (Sydney used to be the uncontested victor but has reclaimed too much land.) Anyway, (pause for breath) I can just about see it out of my window, through the murk. My hotel is nine steep blocks up from the harbour, which is all boardwalk. The room is described as 'beachfront'.

Halifax Waterfront

It's pouring too hard to do any real exploring. I had planned to go down the coast and look for lighthouses. A short trip to the waterfront instead. It's a good way to describe it today. It's very end of season down on the wharf. Half the little gaily painted booths are shut and all the tall ships are standing idle. There are a few brave tourists off a cruise ship and I can just about make out the lighthouse on an island across the water.

Downtown Halifax

There is still a little excitement, as there are not one, but two, soggy marches going on in town. To my delight, there are drums, announcing a stream of native Americans, complete with feathered war bonnets, followed by a troop of Mounties in ceremonial dress. It's the annual celebration of the signing of the treaty (1725) between the British and the Mi'kmaw people, the original inhabitants of the area. Vying for space in the little square, and seemingly unaware that they have competition, are the feather boa wearing dancers of a breast cancer awareness group.

A detour to Citadel Hill, where there have been a succession of four fortifications constructed since the city was founded by the English, in 1749. They were all referred to as Fort George - but only the third one was officially named Fort George. The last incarnation is a concrete star fort, restored to its Victorian splendour.

There are also numerous bijoux eateries, predictably touting the French Canadian 'delicacy', poutine (fries and cheese curds topped with brown gravy) and seafood. But for me lobster calls...then New England..

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